Review by Will Yates

More able lead, Barnhill Community High School

8 May 2022, 5:00

Film

'As sweet and comforting as a milkshake with two straws'

TV review: Euros Lyn’s Heartstopper

Publisher

Netflix

Published

22 Apr 2022

It’s safe to say that the past year has not been an easy one for LGBTQ+ teens in the UK. Transphobic lobbyists and the conversion therapy debacle have left young trans people in crisis; the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill in Florida has fuelled fears of similar measures appearing in British schools; a gay author was banned from visiting a Catholic school by a local diocese; and all of this comes after two years of lockdown that were especially difficult for queer teens reliant on school for a sense of belonging.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that recent shows like It’s a Sin and Sex Education have portrayed even the most loving young queer relationships as fraught with emotional, social and political angst. Into this mix comes Heartstopper, Netflix’s sunny new eight-part series bearing the tagline “boy meets boy”. Although its earnestness might irk some, its depiction of young queer relationships is as sweet and comforting as a milkshake with two straws.

Based on Alice Oseman’s webcomic, Heartstopper sees Year 10 student Charlie (Joe Locke), an openly gay boy at an all-boys’ grammar school, strike up an unlikely friendship with Nick Nelson (Kit Connor), the popular – and ostensibly straight – captain of the Year 11 rugby team. As the show’s title suggests, this friendship gradually blossoms into something deeper, prompting Nick to do some serious soul-searching and disrupting Charlie’s tight-knit band of misfit friends. If this sounds like a tried-and-tested teen romcom structure, it’s because that’s exactly what Heartstopper is.

In truth, it suffers a little from this: some of the interplay between Charlie and his friends is stilted, and the heartfelt dialogue between the central couple tends towards the predictable. But this is forgivable. Often, TV shows treat queer intimacy as transgressive or ineffable, compounding the anxieties LGBTQ+ teenagers already feel about their nascent crushes. A show that normalises emotional articulacy should be celebrated, not decried.

While the dialogue might be straight from the teen romance playbook, there are lots of subtler touches that subvert some of the genre’s more wearisome tropes. One of the show’s strengths is its reassuring handling of dynamics that other shows might have mined for jeopardy: parents are unconditionally supportive, teachers are non-judgmental, and Charlie’s trans friend Elle finds kindness and support upon moving from the boys’ grammar to its all-girls sister school.

It does well to push back at established school-drama power dynamics

It also does well to push back at established school-drama power dynamics. Nick is effusive in his praise for Charlie’s academic and musical ability, and the standard boorish rugby coach is replaced by the dynamic, diminutive Coach Singh. It’s undeniably an optimistic depiction of a modern British state school, but such optimism never feels out of place.

The most compelling bits for me were some of the show’s quieter moments. The characters frequently communicate by messaging, and their habit of silently typing, deleting and retyping their messages rang really true. Director Euros Lyn makes cute nods to the show’s comic-book origins as animated hearts, birds and lightning bolts fizz quietly between characters’ fingertips and mouths at moments of emotional intensity. #

There are also moments where the loneliness of being a queer teen is on full display, and Kit Harris makes particularly good use of these. The look on his face when he sees a lesbian couple in his year kiss under neon-pink lights at a party, or the reflection of a Buzzfeed ‘Am I Gay?’ quiz in his tearful eyes in a darkened bedroom, makes his portrayal of a golden boy in crisis especially affecting.

Many have expressed a mixture of delight at the level of representation this provides, and sadness that it was not around when they were growing up. This bittersweet feeling is entirely understandable, but if anything, it provides an even greater incentive to watch it and mention it to young people around us.

It is in our gift to show young people a safe, colourful space in which they can explore and question their identity. That optimism about what school can be like is the joyful experience Heartstopper offers. And for that – and many other reasons – it’s a long-overdue triumph.



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